New DOC chief confirmed

DOVER — Delaware’s Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to confirm Claire DeMatteis as the state’s new commissioner of the Department of Correction.

Nominated by Gov. John Carney to replace retiring commissioner Perry Phelps, Ms. DeMattei will assume the post on July 15.
The Department of Correction has been struggling over the past decade with understaffing concerns, steadily growing overtime requirements and lawsuits claiming substandard inmate living conditions and medical care.

The department’s systemic ills lurched into the limelight on Feb. 1, 2017, when a riot broke out at the state’s largest prison, resulting in the death of a correction officer.

Ms. DeMatteis was appointed in mid-2017 as Gov. Carney’s special assistant to help implement a list of “41 key recommendations” provided by an independent investigation team.

Working alongside Mr. Phelps for more than a year the duo claimed great progress has been made.
Ms. DeMatteis told senators on Wednesday she wanted to be commissioner to have the opportunity to “carry on the work” her team started.

“For the past two years, I’ve been working with Commissioner Phelps and the various bureau chiefs here today through what’s probably been one of the toughest times in the department’s history,” she said. “The experience has formed a bond of trust and respect.”

When asked by senators what the biggest challenges ahead were, she mentioned safety and recruiting.
“As the commissioner of the DOC, your biggest challenge aleways is safety and security — first, second and third, every day and always,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “But, that’s what correctional officers and probation officers are trained to do. Beyond safety and security, the next biggest challenge is recruitment — bringing in correctional officers.
“We’ve done a good job doing that, particularly in the last year thanks to the governor and General Assembly approving salary increases and signing bonuses.

“This time last year we had 230 vacancies. We’re down to 164 and we have a recruit class that starts next month that has 57 cadets — one of the largest in a couple years. We’re on the right path.”

Correction officers watch the confirmation hearing from the Senate gallery.

Asked how she’d strike the balance between safety in the facilities with rehabilitative programs for inmates she said she believes both goals are achievable.

“I think it’s a false choice to say you have safety and security or you have programing and services for inmates,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “We can do both and we are doing both and we’ll continue to.

“It’s really correctional officers themselves that will say to you we need programming for inmates because they don’t want them idle 24 hours per day. They want education classes, counseling, drug treatment, substance abuse and mental health counseling for inmates.”

For some, Ms. DeMatteis’s appointment seems like political maneuvering. Dover attorney Stephen Hampton, who is represents the more than 100 inmates in a pending lawsuit that alleges “inhumane conditions,” says a candidate from “out-of-state” would have made a better pick.

“I believe that change will only occur at DOC if someone from another state is appointed and given authority to make changes unfettered from the good old boy system,” he said earlier in June.

“Historically, candidates from within the system have had conflicts of interest, with some using their appointment as stepping stones to a better job, such as judge or cabinet secretary for the Department of Security and Homeland Security. Such appointees do not feel free to end the good old boy system, and therefore cannot bring about real change.”

Ms. DeMatteis does, however, have support from staff unions.
Todd Mumford, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police Probation/Parole Lodge 10, says his fellow officers hope she addresses their pressing needs.

“I look forward to working with her,” he said earlier in June. “Hopefully we will be able to work together to increase the visibility of probation and parole as a integral part of the criminal justice system. Part of that will be continuing to work toward more competitive salary and benefits plans as well as providing training and equipment that are representative of a professional law enforcement agency.”

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, says Ms. DeMatteis has his “full support.”
“We think she was a great pick for the job and we’re really looking forward to working with her,” Mr. Klopp said after the Senate confirmation. “She’s smart, hard working and practical. There is no doubt in my mind that Gov. Carney got this one right. There isn’t a more important job right now than DOC commissioner.”

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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